On 30 October 2019, Darlington beat Kidderminster Harriers 1-0 on a wet, foggy, thoroughly unpleasant looking evening in England’s sixth tier.
Darlington’s winner came from a free-kick that was not cleared properly (twice) before former Blackpool player Jarrett Rivers tucked it between the visiting keeper’s legs for the only goal of a pretty unremarkable game.
Amid the celebrations, as Kidderminster defenders pointed fingers and looked sheepish, one player was left needing treatment before being subbed off, after taking a high boot to the chops while attempting to head the initial cross clear.
The unpunished challenge left Liverpool loanee Rhys Williams with a broken nose. Ah, the National League North.
Meanwhile, on the same night over 100 miles away, several of Williams’ fellow FA Youth Cup winning teammates from just a few months earlier claimed a League Cup penalty shootout victory against Arsenal. Homegrown starlet Curtis Jones took the winning spot kick.
A first-team role like that for Williams must’ve seemed a world away.
And yet, one year on, almost to the day, Preston-born Williams turned local hero as he stepped in to play 60 minutes for Liverpool in the 2-0 win over FC Midtjylland in the Champions League.
It has been quite a year for the 19-year-old centre back, who is now also an England Under-21 international and could well be fast-tracked to a first Premier League appearance this weekend against West Ham.
It wasn’t supposed to be this quick a turnaround for Williams. After winning the FA Youth Cup for the Reds in 2019 (alongside the likes of Bobby Duncan and Neco Williams), the rangy defender – who joined Liverpool aged 10 – was sent out on loan to Kidderminster Harriers, essentially to toughen up.
Despite his height – at 6’5 he is one of few Liverpool players who can literally look down on Jurgen Klopp – Williams is baby-faced and slight.
And toughen up at Kidderminster he did. As well as the broken nose at Darlington, Williams accumulated a variety of other battle scars in his first season of senior football, making 26 appearances in the National League North.
Like the naive youngster returning from a stint in prison as a hardened criminal in every gangster film ever made (no offence Kidderminster), Williams had left a boy and returned a man.
“The growing up he has done in the last 15 months is frightening,” Harriers assistant manager Russ Penn told The Athletic. “He looks like a different player. He looks like a different animal.”
Though his time in non-league was a success, it was not exactly expected that Williams would jump five divisions (or over 100 places in the football pyramid) and go straight into the Liverpool first team in 2020, despite having impressed against the likes of Spennymoor and Kings Lynn.
The normal course of action would be a season with the Under-23s or another loan at League One or Championship level. The Athletic reports that there were offers.
However, this is not a normal year.
Even before Jordan Pickford decided to test the structural integrity of Virgil van Dijk’s knee joint and Fabinho went down against Midtjylland, there were already warning signs at the back for Liverpool.
Neither Joel Matip nor Joe Gomez has ever managed 30 games in a Premier League season across nine campaigns at Anfield, while Dejan Lovren’s departure added space for a youngster to step up in a crammed season schedule.
Many might have expected that youngster to be Sepp van den Berg, whose signing launched thousands of Google searches last summer when he was one of few arrivals ahead of the 2019/20 season.
17-year-old Billy ‘the Kid’ Koumetio too was lauded by Klopp in pre-season, while perhaps the most likely defender of all to join the first-team ranks was 23-year-old Nathaniel Phillips, who featured in Germany’s second tier for Stuttgart last season.
Yet, word on van den Berg’s progress has been muted, Koumetio is perhaps still too young and Phillips was left out of the Reds’ European squad in anticipation of a loan move that never came.
Circumstances combined to see Williams queue-jump his way to his first League Cup outings against Lincoln and Arsenal and then a Champions League debut in the dying minutes of the win over Ajax.
After Fabinho went down on Tuesday night, the academy graduate looked assured and comfortable against Midtjylland – rarely needing to exhibit any of the street smarts he’d picked up at Kidderminster (he had to make just one tackle) as the Reds claimed a clean sheet, with goalkeeper Alisson directing the inexperienced backline audibly throughout.
Big-haired, very comfortable on the ball and with the potential to dominate in the air – the Echo point out that Williams’ aerial duels win percentage stands at an impressive 70.6% – there have already been comparisons to Van Dijk, because… well, of course there have.
Fabinho’s hamstring injury is reportedly not as bad as first feared but the Brazilian remains a doubt for the West Ham game on Halloween evening leaving a big question over Klopp’s team selection.
Should Matip not be passed fit, Williams will likely get his Premier League debut and by far the biggest test of his talent so far against the ludicrously in-form duo of Michail Antonio and Jarrod Bowen – who have six goals between them and have tortured several of the league’s best defences already in 2020/21.
Williams’ performance – should he play – won’t make or break his Liverpool nascent career. However, coming through a baptism of fire like this might just be the broken nose (hopefully metaphorically) he needs to jump-start his adaptation to this latest challenge.